Dashing shanty-folk with a keen edge from transatlantic trio.
Rob Hughes 2010
There’s something intractably bucolic about Sparrow and the Workshop. Peruse their record sleeves and you’ll likely find the Glasgow-based threesome – actually a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irish girl from Chicago – skulking about in some darkened dell like the idle children of The Incredible String Band. Or, as in the video for 2009 debut single Devil Song, holding court over white horses and burning pyres in a way that suggests refugee occultists from Hammer horror. Factor in their peculiar pastimes (singer Jill O’Sullivan came third in the stone-skimming world championships) and you’d be forgiven for taking them as vestiges of another era.
But don’t let all that fool you. Crystal Falls, comprising remixed versions of prior EPs plus two new songs, is electrified folk for a thoroughly modern age. Nick Packer’s guitar roars and bucks, Gregor Donaldson’s drumming is often immensely powerful and O’Sullivan is no willowy young dreamer. Yes, her malleable voice is capable of great delicacy – as on You’ve Got it All and the terrific Donaldson duet, Swam Like Sharks – but she’s from the same bluff lineage as Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick or The Duke Spirit’s Liela Moss. The songs are often rugged too: rollicking tales of thwarted desire and cold revenge. Last Chance sounds like a post-punk murder ballad from Ennio Morricone, a mariachi gallop shadowing a spooky lyric. “I could have sworn I killed you,” sings O’Sullivan, “I even checked your pulse.”
There are times when it all gets a little too punchy for its own good. Much of the spectral otherness of the original Devil Song, for instance, is lost amid a tauter remix, guitar and drums shoved front and centre; likewise Into the Wild, with its sharp riff and faintly metallic tang. Sparrow and the Workshop tend to excel when they allow the music to breathe. Crystals is a case in point, creepy intonations sung over a guitar that grumbles in the distance like a gathering storm, and A Horse’s Grin is shanty-folk gate-crashed by a thumping great chorus. Like all worthwhile things, this band demands close attention.